There are many different ways that deafblind people communicate, rather than one standard method. The way that you communicate is likely to depend on your personal preference and whether you have acquired your sensory loss or whether you were born with it. Many people who become deafblind over time prefer to adapt the way they are used to communicating, rather than learning a new method.
Only 7% of communication is verbal, so we rely heavily on body language and tone of voice to gather additional information. Facial expressions, hand gestures, body language and vocal variety give us much more information than words alone.
So, even though you may understand what is being communicated, you may find that you miss the emotion, severity and other complexities of the conversation.
Receiving and expressing
Some people who are deafblind prefer to receive information in one way and express information in a different way. For example, if you have acquired sight and hearing loss over time then you may be able to talk perfectly well as you have been doing this since a very young age. However, you may not be able to hear well enough to take information in, so you might prefer to receive information by lip reading or using deafblind manual.
Some common communication methods are:
Many people who are deafblind can talk and can hear clear speech. This is because you probably learned to talk before your sight and hearing deteriorated. Advances in technology mean that those who would have previously relied on lip reading can now hear through hearing aids and portable listening devices. You may find it useful to use a combination of speech and lip reading, although this often becomes difficult when there is more than one person talking or when there is background noise.
Lip reading is a method of identifying words by watching the shape of someone’s mouth when they talk. It is often used alongside speech; you may be able to pick up words that you don’t hear by lip reading and your brain will make adjustments. If you lip read, remember to ask people to keep their hands away from their mouths when they talk and to stand where you can see them.
British Sign Language (BSL)
BSL is a visual communications method that uses hand gestures instead of spoken words. If you were born deaf then it is likely that you learned BSL as your first language. To use BSL you need to be able to see the other person’s hands, this means that it can difficult to communicate in certain situations, or if you have low vision. If you use BSL and your sight worsens then you may want to use tactile sign language or ‘Hands On’ BSL which involves you feeling the movements of the signers hands.
Signed English borrows signs from BSL, but uses the grammar and sentence structure of the English language. Signed English was developed by teachers of the deaf and other professionals to assist in the English literacy development of deaf (sign language using) children.
Makaton or Key Word Signing
Makaton is another visual language using signs and symbols. It is designed to support spoken language and the signs and symbols are used with speech, in spoken word order. It is often used with children and adults with learning disabilities as a simplified and accessible signed communication.
Visual frame signing
If you have a reduced field of vision then you might find visual frame signing is useful. This is where your communication partner signs (using BSL or another form of sign language) within a smaller area to ensure all of their signs stay within your field of vision.
Deafblind manual is a tactile communications method where individual letters are signed onto your hand so that you can spell words. This is often used by people who have little or no sight or hearing. It is very easy to learn – download our poster and have a go yourself or click here to watch a video of Deafblind Manual.
Probably the easiest deafblind tactile language to express – the block alphabet uses English capital letters, drawn onto your palm.
Braille is a tactile writing system originally developed with embossed paper, but now accessible through refreshable braille displays. Each letter is symbolised by a series of raised dots that you can feel with your fingertips.
If you have some usable vision then you may want to follow signs by holding the signer’s forearm or wrist and using your eyes to follow the signs visually. Having the connection of using vision and touch together means the signs stay within your visual frame and are effectively ‘tracked’.
Hands on Signing/ Co-active Signing
Hands on signing is a tactile derivative of BSL where you gently place your hands on top of your communication partner’s hands to feel the movements of the signs. This may sound complicated but the more you practice, the less you will have to think about it. Click here to watch a video of hands on signing.
Tadoma is a way of receiving communication by placing your hands on someone’s throat, lips or cheeks. Practised users will be able to identify words by feeling lip movements and vibrations. Click here to read about how Christine uses Tadoma.
Moon is another tactile writing system which is rarely used these days. Its patterns follow a more visually recognisable English letter formation, instead of dots, as braille does.
Objects of reference
This is less of a communication system and more of a means to refer to an activity or event. Objects of reference can be really helpful in developing language. For example, a parent of a deafblind child may use a sponge to tell their child that it’s bath time. Later that child may develop the understanding that sponge means bath but flannel means shower. The parent can then offer a choice; flannel (shower) or sponge (bath). Click here to read how Helen Keller used objects of reference as a young girl.